• Christian Elliot

What IS Health Coaching? - Part 2 (4 Magic Questions that Separate Coaches from Practitioners)


As I mentioned at the beginning of my first article, while Nina and I were on a long drive over the weekend she asked me to explain how I would respond when asked "What IS coaching?"


In other words, what are you actually doing with people when you coach them?


After we talked through the differences between a health coach and a health practitioner, we got into the nitty-gritty of what a coaching session is actually like.



As I started talking through the typical flow of a coaching call, it dawned on that I've slowly come up with a sequential series of about four questions I ask clients to quickly get to the heart of the matter to help them move forward.


These four questions identify the real challenges and illuminate the biggest areas of opportunity to begin making significant progress toward the client's goals.

As far as I can tell, this investigative approach to coaching is part of what keeps clients coming back.


But, instead of just giving you the questions, let me put them in context of a real life story...with the name changed to protect the innocent of course.


MEET MEGAN


Megan came to us as a stressed out, busy mom, with a wildly imbalanced endocrine (hormonal) system, brain fog, and all sorts of accumulating aches and pains.


During her consultation:


  1. First, we talked about what she perceives to be the biggest challenge she's facing with her health--low energy, auto-immunity, poor sleep, joint pain, hives, and more.

  2. Then we investigated holistically--i.e. we started looking for the confounding factors contributing to that challenge--high stress, young kids, lack of time, extended family drama, etc.

  3. Next I ask her to identify what she perceives to be the biggest obstacles keeping her from achieving her stated goals--this is where things get interesting.


A common challenge Megan (and almost every client) had, is to learn how to answer that third question.


Here's what I mean...


Typically, I start a coaching call with a question "Where can we move the needle today?"


What new clients usually do (something I learned from Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow) is switch out that question for an easier one, without even realizing they're doing that.


In other words, when I asked her "Where can we move the needle today," what she typically offered up (initially) was something like:


  • I'd like to figure out which foods I should be consuming and how often.

  • I'd like to learn what types of exercises I should do and for how long.

  • I'd like to know which supplements I should take for reflux.


While those aren't bad tidbits of intel for getting healthier, they aren't the heart of the matter either, and the answers to those questions (by themselves) will make very little difference.

Essentially, what I asked Megan for is "Where do you feel stuck in neutral" (i.e. where is the needle not moving) and her answer jumps to a tactical health habit she thinks might be part of the solution.


Did you catch the substitution?


Since "where do you feel stuck in neutral" is a difficult question to ask, her brain subconsciously asked, and then answered "What health habit do you think will help you feel better?"


She said nothing of where she feels stuck, but feels good that she answered the question.


Fascinating right?


And it's not just Megan that does that.


Until we learn to catch ourselves, we all do it when we're faced with a hard question we don't know how to answer.


Substituting a tough question for an easier one is how we keep a conversation moving.

Ah ha...but a good coach adapts too. ;)


It took me a while to realize this was happening, but now when I get an answer like Megan's, I've learned to switch the question for one that forces her to slow down.


HERE'S MAGIC QUESTION #1


I ask...


"If I could wave a magic wand and take away your #1 stress in this moment what would it be?"

Here are two things to note about that question:


  1. See how that question doesn't let you off the hook when looking for something to address that will really move the needle?

  2. Whatever that #1 stressor is, there's going to be a combination of factors that go into solving it. The question brings up complexity.


So why do I ask that difficult question?


I do so because I have found it to always be the most relevant question.


A major part of helping Megan reach her health goals, is accounting for her #1 stressor.


Let me give you some examples:


  • If getting adequate, quality sleep has been a big challenge, and we don't address the kids' chaotic bedtime routine, her genuine need for daily downtime, or her husband's role, we're never going to get her in bed early enough to get restful, restorative sleep.

  • If poor digestion is the problem and we jump straight to something like supplements, but don't address the emotional brick in her stomach of a conversation she has been avoiding, her gut won't respond well.

  • If her joints are in pain and we just straight to corrective exercises and don't give thought to the emotional calculus of who she has to say "no" to make herself a priority, we'll be overlooking a major a motivation sinkhole.


Do you see the point?


Ignoring the biggest stressor, makes as much sense as trying to run a marathon with a 100-pound backpack--the initial steps of such an undertaking might objectively look like progress, but she'll eventually end up broken down and in pain.


While it's usually unrealistic to take all 100 lbs out of a client's backpack by the end of a coaching call, what IS realistic is to clarify the best, near-term focus-of-effort, and keep from being distracted by answers to replacement questions that aren't really addressing the heart of the matter.


Is that making sense?


THE POWER OF BUILDING HEALTH HABITS AFTER ASKING BETTER QUESTIONS


By sitting with harder questions for a few minutes we can begin to clearly identify an area of focus that at first might not be obvious.


The upside is that knowing what to focus on, identifying what's really blocking progress, feels motivating, if not also liberating.


Even better, knowing what to focus on, helps Megan feel like she's actually beginning to do the deep work to make this time (finally) produce a better and lasting outcome.

Starting with the right questions means we're building on a new, clean, solid foundation.


Now, as mentioned above, the solution to the #1 stressor is not always easy.


That's why we need...


MAGIC QUESTION #2


Once we know the current, #1 stressor, we still have two important question to talk through before we start creating an action plan to implement.


The next question goes something like this:


What do you perceive to be the BIGGEST obstacle to reducing or overcoming that stressor, and thus making progress with your health goal this week?

The trick here is to come up with something very tangible.


Usually that's not hard.


Typically a client has no trouble coming up with multiple reasons why it will be hard to stay on track. Megan's history offered plenty of examples.


By looking for the BIGGEST obstacle, we can rank stack what often ends up as a list of challenges, and focus our attention on the lead domino--the domino that, if we can knock it over, will lead to a cascade of other positive outcomes.


But before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you about the a deeper, more profound aspect of Question #2...


THE DEEPER POWER OF QUESTION #2


The magic of question #2 isn't as much the logistical obstacles as it is the opportunity to discover emotional obstacles.


This is the question where both the real and imagined obstacles can be identified.


In other words, this question has the potential to turn up bad information, false narratives and mindset blockages.


By asking a Megan to identify obstacles, it forces her brain to tell stories.


It is the stories we tell that illuminate our assumptions.


It is the assumptions we make that shape how we see the world, and thus what we are (and are not) willing to do.


For Megan, wrestling with Question #2 meant examining the assumption that:

  • Fasting is dangerous for someone like her

  • Other's need were more important than her own.

  • She's "not a disciplined person"

  • My husband doesn't...

  • My kids are...

  • My body always...


Question #2 illuminates the stories we've been telling ourselves about "the way things are."


Here's an important reality...not all the stories we tell ourselves are true.


Some are, but many are not.


The most destructive ones, are the subtly false ones that masquerade in our minds as truth.


Question #2 brings our narratives into the light of day and asks for the accuracy of the story to be verified, or corrected.


It is the work of being asked to speak out loud the stories we tell, that can create powerful moments for learning, introspection, healing, and massively-accelerated progress.

That's not to say there aren't legitimate logistical obstacles (those are real too), but, like Megan, when clients learn to slow down and start questioning their assumptions, sometimes what seemed like a logistical obstacle was actually a false (or partly false) narrative.


In those instances, often the perceived logistical problem simply evaporates.


A good coach, whose job is to look out for your best interest, can help you find those mental splinters--we all have them.


MAGIC QUESTION #3


Once we know the biggest stressor, and the biggest obstacle, we can begin investigating what I call the "prep-the-battlefield" question.


This question is designed to "grease the chute" so as to make the habits we're trying to build easier and easier to practice.


Question #3 often sounds something like:


"How can we set up your physical and mental environment for success in the days ahead?"

The answers to this question can be things like:


  • Throwing away the junk food in the pantry

  • Deleting Facebook from her phone

  • Getting her grocery shopping done at a particular time

  • Setting a boundary with a particular person

  • Having a discussion with her husband about

  • Trying out a new bedtime routine for her kids

  • Setting a professional boundary to protect her time

  • Setting out her workout clothes the night before


What you might notice here is we're not actually talking about specific health habits, but the daily environment where we're trying to practice them.


What's important to consider and account for with Question #3 is the ripple effect the proposed changes in the environment, boundaries, or schedule will produce--i.e. who will be impacted and what new wrinkle might need to be addressed.


Thinking through the ripple effects helps us outthink logistical and emotional challenges before they happen.


MAGIC QUESTION #4


At this point, we can finally get into the nitty gritty.


If the first three questions did their job, this one is easy.


The trick here is two-fold:


  1. To develop a methodical, step-by-step approach to healing and lifestyle change.

  2. To help her not overestimate her capacity and take on too much at once.


Both of those are super important because the more we string together small wins, the more we create that priceless feeling of progress that keeps motivation high.


With that in mind, Question #4 typically goes something like this:


Given what we've talked about so far what action steps seem most relevant and realistic to tackle before we talk again?

The answer to this question can go a myriad of different ways, but by asking an open-ended question, I help Megan take ownership of helping solving her own problems.


As she formulates her answer, I also filter her ideas through a realism lens of all I know about health, and thus can sharpen her thinking about the changes and habits she's suggesting.


For Megan, ground zero revolved around healing her gut in order to address many of the physical symptoms I mentioned above.


That meant we had to map out a methodical journey that involved several, interrelated, lifestyle factors...and the first phase would likely take at least three months.

In the beginning, our collaboration was all about eliminating simple habits she didn't know were unhealthy, and pointing her toward our educational material (cooking classes, workout videos, lectures and so on) that help speed up the process and get her mind excited for the journey ahead.


As she healed, we regularly optimized what she was doing based on the feedback her body was giving us.


As time went by (it has been over a year now) we were able to switch to auto-piloting other key health habits like exercise, home-life rhythms and so on--i.e. we were methodical and didn't attempt to do all of this at once.


WHERE SPECIALIZED, HEALTH KNOWLEDGE BECOMES POWERFUL


In case you're wondering, I don't always "leave Megan to her own devices" to come up with solutions--she did hire me for my specialized knowledge after all.


I often make suggestions to shape our collaborative approach to deciding next steps.


But, do you see how unpacking my brain comes at the end, not at the beginning of a good coaching session?


If I allow myself or Megan to jump ahead too soon, we'll both miss the mark.


What most people do when seeking to improve their health is start with Question #4 (what should I do?) and hope that will produce the outcomes they seek.


That approach won't...which is probably why the average American goes on a diet 55 times.


A lot of people stay stuck in that loop their whole lives.


But, now you know to start from Question #1.


IN SUMMARY


If nothing else, I hope this post gave you a window into where you may be putting the cart before the horse when it comes to your health.


Where might you be too zoomed in such that you're missing the bigger and the most relevant questions about what it will take for you to get and stay healthy.


Part of the magic of the four questions is it forces you to, as Kahneman puts it, "think slow."


  1. Question #1 helps you identify the elephant in the room, that once addressed, can clear the way for significant progress.

  2. Question #2 unlocks the potential of upgrading the quality of ideas you have (your mindset) and searching for deeper truth in the stories you tell ourselves.

  3. Question #3 allows you to picture a real situation where staying on track will be difficult and empowers you to out think that challenge BEFORE it arrives.

  4. Question #4 is designed to force you to get purposeful, and methodically chart out a way to stay motivated and consistent.


None of us can change our lives until we change something we do daily.


Yet, none of us can change our lives, until we remember why those changes are important in the first place.


So...which of those four questions do you need to spend more time with?


Here's to finding fantastically better questions than you've been asking, so you can live an (even) better life than you've been living.


Until next time,


Christian


PS. In case you want to know more about our health coaching program you can:

  1. Check our our website.

  2. See a presentation of how we go upstream and fix health problems.

  3. Take our Health-Transformation-Type Quiz to see how your personality influences the solution that's right for you.

Have a specific question for me? Hit me up at christian@truewholehuman.com



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About Me

You could call me a natural health nerd. I'm a husband and father of five young kids. I wear funny looking toe shoes. I wear out podcasts and audiobooks faster than people can make them. I get paid to ask thoughtful questions and I love writing about what I learn.

 

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